A New Jersey native remembers Music Row’s early years and checks in on NYC’s current indie guitar-shop


Photo courtesy of R. Friedman, We Buy Guitars, LLC

I wanted to be anywhere but my hometown of Bloomfield, New Jersey, in the mid to late ’60s. Los Angeles would have been nice. London would have been better. Most of the bands I liked hailed from those cities.


A vintage shot of the original location of Manny’s Music. Credit: David Deranian/Digital Arts & Sciences
One saving grace was that Bloomfield was only a short ride from Manhattan, and from age 15 on, I regularly made trips into the city alone when I had a few bucks in my pocket—usually the day after Christmas. The bus ride was $1.30 each way, and I managed to figure out the subway system pretty easily. One of my favorite hangouts—after eating at the Horn & Hardart Automat and cruising 42nd Street to gawk at the hookers, lowlifes, porno palaces, and drug dealers—was West Greenwich Village. Specifically, the area around Avenue of the Americas, including Bleecker, MacDougal, and 4th streets. The Music Inn, importer of cool English rock LPs and world music instruments, was a definite stop every time, along with Village Oldies and Matt Umanov’s repair shop. I never went into Umanov’s, but I always enjoyed pressing my nose against the window. I also recall seeing Dan Armstrong’s repair facility.

After college, my new hangout in the Apple was 48th Street—“Music Row,” the nerve center of the musical instrument business in Manhattan. I can’t imagine how many hours I spent ogling the used and vintage guitars in the windows of Stuyvesant Music (aka “We Buy Guitars”), Alex Music, 48th Street Custom Guitars, Rudy’s Music Stop, Terminal Music, and, of course, the venerable Manny’s Music. It was your classic “kid in a candy store” scene. Like most young people, I had very little money to spend on guitars, so my time was mostly spent—you guessed it—pressing my nose against the glass.

Stan Jay of the famous Mandolin Brothers music shop in Staten Island remembers the scene very well.

“Silver & Horland had a very nice store near city hall and the Brooklyn Bridge, but they later moved to 48th Street and, within a few years, were gone. There was a guitar store named for and run by Noah Wolfe. Harry West—a private detective with an office on Park Place where J&R Music is now—had, in his apartment in the Bronx, one of the finest collections of acoustic instruments in the northeast. And Marc Silber, who later moved to California, had a shop in the Village. There were also buyers/sellers to whom musicians knew they could go to find special instruments. One of them was George Mell (née Melaga), who lived here in Staten Island. There was a fellow known as ‘Frank the Barber,’ who had his tonsorial parlor on 9th Avenue in Manhattan. Andy Statman purchased his famous blackface A2 snakehead Gibson mandolin from Frank.”


Debbie Harry of Blondie looks on as bassist Jimmy Destri (left) and guitarist Chris Stein (right) check out guitars at Stuyvesant Music in May of 1977. Credit: Bob Gruen

Flash forward to 2010, and things certainly have changed. We Buy Guitars on 48th closed years ago and then reopened a few years ago on Long Island. Terminal Music is gone. Alex Music is gone. 48th Street Custom Guitars is gone, and Manny’s, incredibly and unfortunately, closed last May after 75 years in business. Manny’s had been bought out by Sam Ash Music in 1999. Sam Ash told Premier Guitar in 2008 that the company purchased the store because it was having troubles, and they believed it was an institution that should be maintained. That closing was a real loss for New York’s musical community—not to mention the touring pros who frequented Manny’s regularly. I met jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, blues legend John Mayall, famed producer and musician Todd Rundgren, and Barry Tashian, guitarist from’60s garage-rock band the Remains, at Manny’s.

Jay puts it rather succinctly: “The world-famous block known as ‘Music Row,’ is being gradually disassembled and dispersed so that more skyscrapers can be erected.”

This brings us to the subject of “big box” music stores. Those who know me—friends, acquaintances, and fellow musicians—know of my disdain for big-box music stores and my vociferous defense of independent music retailers everywhere. BBs certainly maintain a presence in New York City’s retail music establishment, and they have their place for the segment of the population to which they cater. But, I am pleased, even elated, to say that independent guitar shops, with their heightened selection and personalized customer service, are making a serious comeback in New York City—proving once and for all that big boxes are not taking over. Most NYC indie dealers are holding their own, and some are thriving and expanding, even in the present economic downturn.

MANHATTAN MAINSTAYS

Rudy’s Music Stop (rudysmusic.com) has occupied 169 West 48th Street since 1978. Owner/guitarist Rudy Pensa left his native Argentina with a dream to operate a music store in New York City. With a passion not only for electric instruments, but also for archtops and acoustics, Pensa is not only a player and businessman, but a builder as well. In 1982, he began making guitars that were sold in the shop, and in 1985 he began collaborating with luthier John Suhr to produce the PensaSuhr line of electrics.

Rudy’s specializes mostly in high-end instruments, as well boutique effects and amps. He also stocks numerous vintage and used guitars, amps, and basses. Rudy’s Amp Room and Repair Shop is located right around the corner at 723 7th Avenue, and his new SoHo store is at 461 Broome Street. Rudy’s prices are certainly not “bargain basement,” but there’s no denying the astounding selection of high-quality gear he sells.

Matt Umanov Guitars (umanovguitars.com) has been in Greenwich Village since 1969, but Umanov himself was doing repairs and restorations as early as 1965 before becoming a retailer. He stocks Fender, Gretsch, PRS, James Trussart, and Collings electrics, but his true love is acoustic guitars. “The need to pick up and play acoustic instruments will never go away,” he says, “it’s built into the human genome.” Umanov carries new Taylor, Martin, Guild, Collings, National, and Seagull flattops, plus used and vintage pieces. Umanov even recently collaborated with singer/songwriter Steve Earle on a signature Martin. Umanov claims it’s not hard maintaining a store in New York City, and as for the big box retailers, he commented, “Fortunately, our longevity, reputation, and location have made this not as big a problem as it is for some. We figured out how to deal with the economy last year and are doing nicely.”

30th Street Guitars (30thstreetguitars.com) has been serving the city since 1997. Owner Matt Brewster grew up working in a music store in Ossining, New York. A visit to his shop is like walking into electric guitar heaven. Used and vintage Gibsons and Fenders are everywhere, and there are lots of oddball electrics, too: Supros, Danelectros, Silvertones, Harmonys, sparkle-covered Italian kitsch, and ’60s Japanese “cheese,” such as Teiscos and Kingstons. But Brewster also builds his own Rust brand of relic’d, Fender-style solidbodies that are extremely playable and priced within reach of most guitarists. The bodies and necks are custom made for him, and he does all the relic work himself.

Flying in the face of convention, Brewster doesn’t advertise—and that includes in phone books. When questioned why he decided to start a guitar shop, he replies, “I started off playing guitar and fixing guitars, but I realized I wasn’t going to be a rock star. So after working at Ossining Music Center for over 10 years and spending about a year working for Brian Moore, one of the employees there approached me with the idea of opening a store. It’s tough to maintain a store like this with the high rent. The economy has impacted me, sales-wise, but it’s actually been good for repairs. We get a lot of international walk-in business. Brazil is a hot spot for guitar sales. Those customers tell other people and they’ll buy from us. And because we’re close to Madison Square Garden, we deal with guitar techs that come in. We work with a lot of big-name artists and I wouldn’t want to drop names, but I will say that Eric Clapton came in one day to try out guitars, because he knew he could try things out and be left alone. This is a place where everyone can be comfortable trying out guitars, amps and pedals. It should be fun!”


Cramped Quarters: The vibey entrance to Dan’s Chelsea Guitars and its eclectic collection of six-strings and memorabilia. Photo by Carianne Cianci

Dan’s Chelsea Guitars (chelseaguitars.com) is located on the ground floor of the world famous Chelsea Hotel at 220 West 23rd Street in a store not much bigger than the average Park Avenue walk-in closet. Packed into this tiny space is an extremely interesting collection of used and vintage guitars and amps of all types, as well as oddball memorabilia, vintage microphones, and other ephemera. The atmosphere is strictly “hole-in the-wall-dusty-chic,” but the staff is knowledgeable, friendly, and ready to satisfy customers with good equipment and prices to match.

First Flight Music (firstflightmusic.com) is a downtown shop that has been in operation since 1995. Owner Dan Wollock commented, “I’ve always been a part of the NYC music community, and I’ve always loved cool vintage guitars, so I put the two together.” Asked about the prospect of being a musical instrument merchant, he says, “It’s absolutely tough to maintain a retail store here. Space is expensive, and now there’s real competition. However, New Yorkers are pretty savvy and recognize something unique. Reputation is everything, so we just try and offer folks great deals and great service. Our amp repairs are fast and reliable. People come here knowing they’ll find something unique. Also, I’m fairly sure we have the biggest new and used parts selection around. Plus, we have a rock music school that goes beyond the typical guitar and bass lessons to include drums, keyboards, woodwind, and vocal instruction too.” And when queried about his specialty, Dan replies, “We change with the times. Right now, it’s what I call ‘proto’ guitars—the 1950s solidbodies by US makers like Kay, Harmony, Orpheum, and Airline, plus some of the Japanese Guyatone and Teisco models that play and sound amazing.”

Ludlow Guitars (ludlowguitars.com), at 164 Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side, has been in business since 1999. They specialize in new Gibson and Fender instruments, but carry an eclectic selection of new, used, and vintage guitars. They also claim to offer the best selection of pedals in NYC. According to co-owner Kaan Howell, “We’re here because New York is the greatest city in the world, although it certainly has been tough in the recent economic climate. But we have no reason to believe that New York City is any more difficult to do business in than any other region of the United States. It’s been tough going, but if we can survive this, and it seems that we will, then we will be able to survive anything.”

Howell also stresses that Ludlow is all about customer service. “We are a friendly local store where you can try anything and everything for as long as it takes to find what you are looking for. We are staffed by gigging musicians working on a non-commission basis, and who know the product inside and out and can provide solid advice so customers get what they need as opposed to what they might have thought they wanted.”

BROOKLYN BIG-HITTERS
In Brooklyn—“the garden spot of the world,” according to Art Carney’s character of Ed Norton on the old Honeymooners TV show—Rocky Schiano claims his Street Sounds shop (streetsoundsnyc.com) is the largest Gretsch guitar dealer in the USA, if not the world. Schiano started in the retail compact-disc business in 1988 and had three locations at one point, but when CDs started to die out in favor of digital downloading he made the switch to musical instruments, and decided to focus on Gretsch.

“I started by bringing in a few guitars, and sales started to rise as CD sales declined,” Schiano explains. “In 2005, I went to guitars only. I was open full-time, but as I no longer have a full-time store manager, I’m only open two days a week. I do about 90% of my business online.”


Street Sounds’ Rocky Schiano—New York City’s go-to Gretsch guy. Photo by Carianne Cianci

At any given time, Street Sounds has 200 to 300 Gretsches in stock. Scanning the store, one sees Gretsch boxes literally everywhere. Consequently, over the last couple of years Schiano has developed a sterling reputation as one of the go-to-guys for anything and everything Gretsch. However, Street Sounds also carries Guild acoustics and the entire Fender Musical Instrument Corporation line.

When asked how he started with Gretsch, Schiano says, “It was really by accident. I was handling mostly low-end guitars and decided to bring in the Jackson line, so the FMIC sales rep came in with all her catalogs. I noticed the Gretsch catalog and ordered two or three. I had always liked Gretsch guitars. It was hard to get up and running at first, but then Gretsch sales began to take off. I sold a lot of guitars to guys on gretschpages.com—people who are extremely passionate about Gretsch. I’ve built this business on word of mouth and reputation.”

Have the big boxes cut into Street Sounds’ business? Schiano smiles, “It’s so easy to kick their asses! I use them as a model of what not to do. We give customers great guitars at great prices, with outstanding service. We can always beat the prices the big boxes charge. The average Gretsch player has three or four, so we’ve been able to earn their repeat business by taking care of them. Gretsch sales comprise about 50% of my total business.”

“The people who run Gretsch are very passionate about what they do. Fred Gretsch personally took me down to where the old factory used to be here in Brooklyn. It was an amazing experience.”

Southside Guitars (southsideguitars.com) is owned and operated by brothers Ben and Sam Taylor, both lovers of what they call “wild and weird” electric guitars. Here, guitarists find oddball makes like Eko, Wandre, and Guyatone, as well as used and vintage guitars by Gibson, Fender, Martin, Epiphone,Rickenbacker, Danelectro, and others. Southside also sells Victoria, Vox, Gibson, and Fender amps, as well as Bill Nash guitars.

STILL KICKING IN QUEENS
The only dedicated guitar shop in Queens is The Music Zoo (themusiczoo.com), and it’s been there since 1994. Owner and NYC native Tommy Colletti taught guitar and had an extensive network of students and guitar-playing friends, so he naturally became a “guitar finder” for them. Eventually, he opened a shop that specializes in rarer guitars from the Fender and Gibson Custom Shops, Charvel, John Suhr, B.C. Rich (handmade US models), Godin, and Taylor. Music Zoo’s clientele ranges from rock stars to beginners.

According to manager Mark DiDonna, “The last 18 months have been very challenging and it has helped us to reassess how we do business. We have adjusted our business model, and our inventory reflects that. We only carry the most desirable brands. From what I can see, the worst of the economy is behind us, and our website has seen a tremendous uptick in recent months. We also get a lot of foot traffic being in New York City.” He adds, “Like other smaller shops, we are always available to the customer to answer questions and spend time finding them the right guitar.”

STATEN ISLAND STALWARTS
Mandolin Brothers (mandoweb.com) has been in business since 1971, and its owner, Stan Jay, is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on vintage stringed instruments—and their unassuming tan building in the suburbs has an inventory to match the reputation. It’s bursting with high-end acoustic and electric instruments of all sorts.

Jay had come to appreciate older guitars in 1964 after buying a used sunburst Gibson J-200. He and his original partner, “Hap” Kuffner, started the business seven years later when they bought the pieces of two rare banjos, which they reassembled and sold. With the profit, they bought and sold an old Martin, then borrowed $3000 “in a bold, capitalistic frenzy,” according to Jay. Then they rented a second-story walkup above a loan company.

“I’m not sure the term ‘vintage’ even existed in 1971. These were considered used or second- hand pieces until, gradually, musicians began realizing there was an unmistakable difference in sound, appearance, and playability between the old and new.” Jay continues, “It was a hobby that turned into an internationally known, niche-market business. First, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash came to visit, then Dave Van Ronk, then Mike Seeger and Joni Mitchell. Judy Collins bought a 1939 Martin D-28 herringbone from us. The market was growing and we quickly became one of its pioneers.”

But why Staten Island and not Manhattan?

“It sort of picked me. After graduating from Penn State, I came to Wagner College on Staten Island to complete a master’s degree and stayed on to pursue a doctorate in college teaching of English at Columbia University. Staten Island is a great place to live. More suburban than urban, it has the largest per-capita area of parkland in New York City, and it is a borough of single-family homes, many of which—at least on the North Shore—are old Victorians. People ask me why we aren’t located in Manhattan. Let me respond by saying that the opening statement that greets visitors when they walk in is, ‘You can play every instrument in the place and ask us up to one million questions.’ The interaction with each customer is harmonious and haimish—a Yiddish term that translates as ‘a homelike atmosphere, unpretentious, warm, cozy, and relaxed.’”

Like most music retailers, Jay has had to adjust his business model to adapt to economic realities.

“During this great economic meltdown we realized there was a strong product passage in the direction of lower-priced pieces, so we started stocking Epiphone, more affordable Martins, the truly astonishing Guild GAD series guitars made in China, Gold Tone mandolins, banjos and resonator guitars, and the new Fender American Special series electrics with their street price of $799. We shifted our product mix to reflect the acquisition patterns of a cautious customer base that’s less prone to impulse purchasing. The economy has caused us to rethink not only our product mix, but our advertising and our use of the internet.”

“Throw in the towel? Fuggedaboutit!” If there’s one thing that all of the Big Apple entrepreneurs mentioned here have in common, it’s that particularly infectious brand of savvy New Yawk determination, mixed with a bit of an attitude that makes one believe they’re in the retail game for keeps. Here’s hoping they succeed in their efforts to preserve independent music stores in New York City.

From Supro to Tiesco to EKO to Vox, Airline, Harmony, Mosrite and more, we look into the charm and market for cheap, funky vintage electrics.

My name is Bob, and I’m addicted to cheap, funky electric guitars. Oh sure, I love my Les Pauls and the rest of my high-quality guitars, but lately the allure of a good Supro, a cheesy Japanese Teisco, or one of those tacky, plastic-covered Italian EKO guitars has been calling me. Even the “mother-of-toilet-seat” ones are starting to look good. Why is this happening? Maybe it’s because many of these cheaply made, once-maligned pawnshop rejects from the ‘50s and ‘60s are easily obtainable, generally priced right, and after a proper setup and often-needed repairs, play pretty darn well, and with a sound, look and vibe unlike most any high-end guitar. And who wants to look and sound just like everyone else?

Decades ago, this writer got into the vintage guitar game with the purchase of a couple dozen big-name electrics. All are regrettably gone, and today—as the father of two kids with a mortgage, car payments, and the usual dayto- day expenses we all share—high-dollar vintage guitars are way beyond my grasp. I made some serious money on the guitars I sold, and eventually disavowed vintage guitars, but have regained a strong desire to re-enter the arena. The solution was to buy “sleeper” guitars: the cheap, easily affordable stuff. Of course, if I find a ’59 Sunburst Les Paul under a farmer’s bed out in the boonies, I’m not going to turn it down.

So, I started in the usual places: eBay, Craigslist, Vintage Guitar magazine, guitar dealers, various websites that cater to weird guitars, and to collectors like Mike Robinson, owner of Eastwood Guitars, a company that specializes in reproductions of bizarre guitars. I found out quickly there were plenty of choices out there, but as is the case with well-known vintage guitars, the rarer, odd stuff is more costly than commonly found models. Here’s an overview for those of you interested in collecting weird vintage guitars from the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Livin’ In The USA
Harmony Guitars of Chicago was by far the largest maker of budget-priced guitars in the US for 83 years. In 1965, Harmony shipped a whopping 350,000 guitars, and sold 10 million guitars between 1945 and 1978, astounding numbers, to say the least. The instruments were sold primarily at Sears and JC Penney, and later by music distributors. Hollowbody electrics like the Rocket are now collectible and favored by blues players, and can normally be had for a fairly reasonable price, unlike their Gibson counterparts from the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Harmony’s earliest solidbody, the Stratotone, a rudimentary instrument also a favorite among blues players, commands big bucks on the collectible market. One mint example recently fetched $1500 on eBay. Harmony, like other American manufacturers of low-end guitars, fell victim to the influx of cheaply made Asian guitars that began to flood the US market in the mid-‘60s. Today, a company in Elk Grove, IL owns the name Harmony, and has begun reissuing some of the company’s better-known electric models.


‘60s Smith (Mosrite) “Mel-O-Bar” with zebra-padded, explorer- shaped body; ‘60s Silvertone Jupiter with black sparkle finish and De Armond pickups.
Another preeminent manufacturer of cheaply made American electric guitars was New Jersey-based Danelectro. Founder Nat Daniel, whose name is frequently overshadowed by fellow innovators like Leo Fender, Les Paul, Ted McCarty, Paul Bigsby and others, was an extremely forward-thinking, clever and adaptable man, who knew how to make a good, cheap guitar. To quote his son, Howard Daniel, in Doug Tulloch’s book Neptune Bound: The Ultimate Danelectro Guitar Guide: “My father’s most fundamental innovation however, may well have been the basic idea behind virtually everything he made—to produce amplifiers and guitars that were both high quality and affordable to ordinary people, especially the families of youngsters—beginners who wanted to learn the guitar but didn’t have a lot of money to spend.”

In 1949, Nat started building amplifiers for Sears and Epiphone, but in 1954 he went into business making guitars under the Danelectro name, while he continued to sell to Sears and later Montgomery Ward under the names Silvertone and Airline. Nat was an expert at producing highly playable guitars for very little money. By the time he sold out to MCA (Music Corporation of America) in 1966, Nat had produced some of the most playable, interesting, and innovative low-budget electric guitars ever made. Hundreds of thousands of kids started with a Danelectro-built guitar, and today, literally every vintage “Dano” is collectible. More common models like the Convertible and the Short Horn are available in their various incarnations, but are becoming harder to find as collectors seemingly hoard old Danos. Rarer models, like the U series guitars in custom colors, the black Short Horn “Jimmy Page” model, the Guitarlin, and Long Horn basses, will set you back serious coin, but you can pick up a vintage Danelectro Convertible or U-1 for under $500, and they make a very good utility guitar.

The National/Valco Company had a long and checkered history that started with the Czechoslovakian Dopyera brothers, who founded the company and invented the Dobro as well as steel-bodied acoustics favored by bluesmen. In the 1950s, Valco produced some of the coolest low-end guitars imaginable. Their USA map-shaped Res-O-Glas guitars have a cult following, and fetch high prices on the vintage market—a fact that frankly baffles this writer, because the guitars were not well constructed, often play poorly, and sound nearly as bad. Fiberglass isn’t exactly conducive to great tone. Valco, however, hit a home run with their wooden-body Supro guitars, originally intended as the company’s budget line. Models such as the Les Paul Junior-like Belmont, its twin-pickup sibling the Dual-Tone, and the early and very basic single-pickup Ozark, have endeared themselves to guitarists worldwide, including Link Wray, Joe Perry, Rory Gallagher, David Bowie and many others. Supros make excellent slide guitars. Valco pickups look like humbuckers, but are actually large single-coil units with a raunchy, distinct tone all their own. Yours truly just recently won a nifty white ’58 Dual-Tone on eBay for $660.

Valco also made Supro-style solidbodies that carried the names Tosca, Bronson, and Dwight, specifically for musical instrument retailers or distributors. These show up on eBay with some regularity, and are quite rare yet surprisingly affordable. And finally, there are the Valco-made Airline guitars, most notably the angular, bright red Res-O-Glas “Jetsons” model made famous by White Stripes’ guitarist Jack White. Originals now sell for high dollars, but you can grab a faithful repro by Eastwood for much less. Also in the USA corner, Kay guitars have attained cult collectability status. Like Harmony, Kay guitars were specifically aimed at the beginner and intermediate market. When Kay attempted to manufacture a high-end instrument for jazz guitarist and endorser Barney Kessel in the 1950s, they were not taken seriously. Today, those Barney Kessel models and their offshoots, with Art Deco “Kelvinator” headstocks and “Kleenex Box” pickups, go for big bucks on the collectible market due to their rarity, but more common models, like the solidbody Vanguard and almost all Kay archtops, are plentiful and inexpensive. In serious financial trouble, Kay was acquired by Valco in 1967, and both companies tanked as a result the influx of Japanese imports in 1969.

Magnatone was a small American company based in Texas. Today, they are more famous for their amplifiers (Stevie Ray Vaughan favored them) than their guitars, which are less well known and never caught on. Paul Bigsby had a hand in designing some of the Magnatone models, which bore names like Typhoon, Starstream, Hurricane and Zephyr. One Magnatone had a distinct Rickenbacker vibe, very similar to the John Lennon 325 Rickenbacker model. A guitar teacher I knew years ago used a guitar like this for years, and all his students wanted to buy it. According to Magnatone collectors, the guitars are well made and highly playable. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top is a notable Magnatone collector.

Hailing from San Antonio, TX were Alamo guitars, which are even more obscure than Magnatones. They are very rare and can be compared favorably to certain Danelectro models. Even Gibson got into the low-end act in the ‘60s with their Kalamazoo guitars, whose bodies were manufactured out of mediumdensity pressed fiberboard. The most common Kalamazoo model was styled along the lines of the SG Melody Maker, and used the same pickups. Another resembled the Fender Mustang. Gibson kept the line going into the early 1970s, but it suffered at the hands of cheaper Japanese imports, and Gibson finally tossed in the towel on budget instruments.

The Japanese Connection
Now, let’s look at those infamous, cheesy Japanese guitars from the ‘60s, bearing names like Teisco, Teisco Del-Ray, Jedson, Tulio, Kingston, Lyle, Duke, Heit, Kimberly, Zim-Gar, Apollo, Kent, Norma, and several others, including Silvertone. These “prizes” were manufactured from 1948 until 1969 in the Kawai factory for various music distributors, and are now known as “stencil brands.” The distributor specified the name to be printed on the headstock. Often, there were subtle design variations on guitars, depending upon the distributor’s specifications.


1965 Harmony H 15 Silhouette (later renamed H 15 Bob Kat) with De Armond “Golden Tone” pickups; late-‘60s Vox Folk Twelve Electro; ‘60s Valco/Airline Res-O-Glas model.


During the mid-‘60s, there was a tremendous demand for guitars in the wake of the British Invasion and The Beatles’ success. Some American manufacturers had difficulty producing a truly low-end, inexpensive electric guitar for beginners, so the Japanese filled that niche quite nicely. Many youthful guitarists started on Japanese electrics. Regardless of what it was, if it was made in Japan, it was regarded as cheap junk back then. During the mid-‘70s, the Japanese finally began producing quality guitars, but up until then, the instruments were decidedly inferior in most ways to their American or European counterparts. Of the vintage Japanese names out there, certainly the most well known is Teisco, but as mentioned, you will find many names on these guitars. In addition to the models commonly available in the USA, there were Japanese guitars that rarely made it to this country. Some of them are weird beyond belief.

Teisco/Kawai guitars were generally based loosely on Fender designs, complete with as many as four single-coil Strat-like pickups that were sometimes microphonic, six-on-a-side headstocks, offset-waist body designs and more switches than your mom’s Waring blender. Playability was questionable at best, and the necks varied in thickness from guitar to guitar. This author bought his first electric in 1966, a Teisco of the lowest quality, for a mere $15. Among the most distinctive Teisco models were the May Queen, with its artist’s palette-shaped body, and the Spectrum 5, which has become expensive and desirable, primarily as a result of its use by Eddie Van Halen in one of his group’s MTV videos. More common varieties of Teisco guitars can still be purchased for very little, particularly on eBay, often for under $200. Rarer models usually go for a little more. Blues, punk, and surf guitarists like Teiscos for their raunch appeal and trebly twang. My white Teisco-made Kingston single-pickup axe is a nasty slide guitar. Think Hound Dog Taylor. And the whammy bar is still on there.

Euro Bizarros

1965 ’66 Vox Guitar-organ with power supply; ’66 Goya electric (made in Sweden by Hagstrom) in gold sparkle with Electric and Acoustic buttons, s/n 477/520; Goya “Boombox” Bass Boost pedal and “Attache” briefcase amp (about the size of a backgammon board with brown vinyl covering, 12 watts).

In the ‘60s, the worldwide demand for guitars resulted in instruments produced in all parts of the globe. We can offer only a brief overview of that scene. A detailed listing of electric guitars made around the world could be a book unto itself.

Italy was one of the most prolific producers of weird electrics. Brand names like EKO, Crucianelli, Goya, Meazzi, Galanti, Welson, Bartolini, Davoli, Gemelli, the original Vox guitars, and the wacky but wonderful Wandre guitars, are all collectible today. Of these brands, EKO instruments, distributed in the USA by the LoDuca Brothers of Milwaukee, are the most readily available, and the most common models can be purchased for under well $1000. Many Italian guitar builders also made accordions, so you’ll see heavy use of plastic covering on the guitars, the same type also used on drums. It’s not uncommon to see sparkle tops and various shades of marine pearl on Italian guitars, something that gives them a unique look, not to mention their own tonal characteristics. EKO guitars often came festooned with lots of switches, as many as four pickups, and other examples of strangeness. With some work, EKOs can usually be made to play relatively well, but caveat emptor: EKO quality is decidedly hit and miss, as is the case with most low-budget guitars of the ‘60s. Interestingly, Hanson Guitars of Chicago builds a very convincing replica of the EKO 500 3V-but with a Teisco-style headstock! I’d like to try one out.

The German industrial machine, crippled after World War II, recovered in the ‘50s and produced several brands of guitars that were popular in Europe but largely ignored in the USA, until a certain Paul McCartney popularized the Hofner violin bass. Vintage Hofner six-strings are well made instruments, but they are rare. Hofner guitars are being produced again and have garnered new fans as well as nostalgia nuts. Other German brands were Framus, Hopf, Hoyer, and Dynacord. Bill Wyman played a Framus bass. American guitars were very hard to come by in postwar England due to restrictive import laws, so English guitarists had to make do with inexpensive Euro and Asian imports, as well as their own guitars, with names like Burns, Watkins, Wilson, Fenton-Weill and Hayman. Vox guitars, originally made in Italy and later in Britain, were widely used in the ‘60s—the most famous example being the white Teardrop model played by Brian Jones. All Vox guitars are collectible, but still a bargain compared to American vintage pieces. New Vox guitar models are available today. Burns guitars were also popular in England, and were endorsed by luminaries like The Shadows, the Searchers, and many others. After being out of production for years, Burns Bison guitars were revitalized a few years ago.

Sweden is most famous for their Hagstrom guitars, often Fender-like and moderately priced, but nonetheless high-quality instruments that were somehow relegated to the world of the pawnshop. They were readily available in the USA in the ‘60s, and are being manufactured in Korea today. Bizarre electrics from Western and Eastern Europe, former Iron Curtain countries (check out the hideous Russian-made Tonika guitar) and other countries, are hard to find and far too numerous to list here, but they are generally some of the crudest, most off-the-wall guitars ever made.

Is It Nostalgia?
Flash-forward forty years, and guys like me are buying these once-derided losers for their coolness factor. Why? Nostalgia? That’s certainly part of the equation. In all likelihood, the rush to collect off-brand electrics stems partially from the aforementioned desire for individuality. Let’s face it, high-end instruments are everywhere these days. They’re ubiquitous. No offense to anyone, but some of us want something different that sets us apart from the crowd. Stratocasters and Les Pauls are great, but how many can you handle?

The Experts Check In
Ron Rothman, proprietor of Rothman’s Department Store of Southold, NY, is generally regarded as the world’s leading authority on Harmony guitars. “My experience with these guitars goes back to the early ‘60s,” he reported. “My first guitar was a Harmony acoustic. I would spend hours looking through catalogs from music distributors like Targ & Dinner, Buegeleisen and Jacobson, and C. Bruno that had pages of assorted Harmonys to look at.”

When questioned about why there is so much interest in old Harmony guitars, Ron replied, “They are one of the last affordable vintage USA-made guitars. They are retro, they look cool, and they offer unique-sounding pickups. The H-22 bass is one of the best sounding basses out there. The Richie Valens Stratotone, metal- bound Espanada, and the 3-pickup guitars with all the knobs and switches are desirable. The DeArmond pickups they used give them a unique tone that differentiates them from other major manufacturers. Rockabilly jazz boxes (by Harmony) are popular and sought after.”

Doug Tulloch, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on Danelectros, had this to say: “I bought my first Danelectro, a 1958 model #3011, from a barbershop for $80. This was the late ‘70s. That’s when I fell in love with the brand. The fact that they’re very playable, light, sound great, and built in the USA, was instrumental in my developing an interest in the company and the guitars. Also, back in the day they were cheap! Danos are more desirable and in demand than ever. I recently had the honor of procuring a ’67 Danelectro for Pete Townshend.”

Ben Taylor, co-owner of Southside Guitars of Brooklyn, NY, is a vociferous fan of funky electric guitars. “I became a fan of these guitars when I was living in Portland, Oregon in the 1990s and playing in bands,” he told me. “Oddball guitars were cheap, and they often had cool and unique tone possibilities. I had no interest in playing a Strat or Les Paul, or interest in emulating the sound of guitar gods like Hendrix and Page. Plus, the oddball guitars were super-cool looking.” When asked about the reason for his attraction to weird electrics, he had this to say: “I got into learning about them. So many foreign companies were building guitars in the 1960s. I have enjoyed learning about the different brands, and then trying to find and play them. Many are pretty trashy, but some, like Vox, Hagstrom and Wandre, are very high quality. A relatively large portion of my business comes from the sale of oddball guitars. I really search for them and try to have a large selection at all times. Musicians who want them are trying to find a voice of their own, perhaps something to use on a record that will sound different.”


A recent Burns of London Bison Bass based on the mid-‘60s models; mid-‘60s Klira Twen Star model 162 violin bass; ‘60s Danelectro-made Silvertone electric bass.
Finally, Mike Robinson, owner of Eastwood Guitars, a company that offers reissues of cheapo electrics, weighed in on the subject: “I have always been drawn to the types of guitars that had far too many pickups, knobs and switches. The attraction was driven more as pieces of art, I suppose.” When asked why there are so many new retro guitars out there, and why so much interest in oddball electrics, he replied, “The price of traditional vintage guitars, like Fender, Gibson and Gretsch, have skyrocketed over the past decades, putting ownership out of the reach of your average collector. Secondly, the Internet has allowed the awareness and history of these quirky guitars to be available to anyone. Because they have more appeal for their looks than their playability and tone, it is not as crucial to physically pick one up and play it, so people buy them for the look first. More often than not, they are pleasantly surprised to find they actually play as well as any other Fender, Gibson or Gretsch production guitar in that price range.”

Not all guitar dealers think low-end electrics are worth owning. Phil Keller, manager of the guitar department at Alto Music in Middletown, NY commented, “We’re going right down the food chain with these weird guitars from the ‘60s. We used to throw guitars like this in the garbage. You found them hanging in pawnshops all the time and nobody wanted them back then. People are collecting Teiscos because they can’t afford high-dollar electrics.”

And Finally
Should you decide to explore the possibility of acquiring an oddball electric guitar or two (or more), check out a very informative article titled “Guitar Collecting on a Budget” (by Steven Brown of vintaxe.com) on the website: ToyNfo.com, the Vintage Toy Encyclopedia. It’s an informative starting point for anyone interested in bizarre guitars. A few dealers specializing in weird electrics are: Diamond Strings of Rochester, NY; Southside Guitars of Brooklyn, NY; and Mike Robinson of Eastwood Guitars, who sells selected pieces from his vast collection. Other dealers can be located online. There is a good deal of information about unusual electric guitars available on the internet, including these websites: voxshowroom. com; fetishguitars.com; cheesyguitars.com; myrareguitars.com; burnsguitarmuseum.com, lordbizarre.com; sovietguitars.com, and vintaxe.com. There are many others as well.

The author wishes to thanks Doug Tulloch, Ron Rothman, Mike Robinson, Ben Taylor, and Phil Keller for their participation. Belated thanks to the late Nat Daniel, a man I wish I’d had the pleasure of knowing.

The photographer wishes to thank Russell Pompeo of Moonlight Music, 467 S. Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas, CA, for carte blanche permission to shoot photos in his store. All photographs for this article, except the pawnshop façade, were taken at Moonlight Music.

The Doors'' guitarist and co-writer shares his beginnings and his affinity for SGs


In the late ’60s, I played drums with a New Jersey garage band called Saturday’s Garbage (yes, that really was our name). We were enamored with the first Doors album, so much so that we covered almost every song. Our guitarist was a very good player for his age, but when it came time to rehearse “Light My Fire,” he could not get a handle on Robby Krieger’s extended solo with all its offbeat, out-there phrases. At his request, we simply omitted it and went directly to the organ solo. Problem solved.

But I’m sure our guitar player wasn’t the only one who had difficulty. Krieger—who co-wrote many Doors hits including “Light My Fire,” “Love Me Two Times,” “Touch Me,” and “Love Her Madly”— always played with a certain air of distinctness and individuality. His own style was a far cry from the usual guitar-hero suspects like Clapton, Beck, Hendrix, and Page. Thanks to his parents’ extensive record collection, Krieger grew up being smitten with classical music and flamenco guitar, as well as blues, jazz, R&B, country, and folk. Like millions of kids in the 1950s, when he heard Elvis Presley, it was all over. But while Krieger often wore his influences on his sleeve, he still managed to create an extremely identifiable style and a sound unlike anyone else’s.

After the Doors disbanded in the early ’70s, Krieger formed the Butts Band with Doors drummer John Densmore, bassist Phil Chen, keyboardist Roy Davies, and British vocalist Jess Roden. In addition, he eventually recorded and toured with his own band, which concentrated primarily on instrumental jazz/rock fusion. In 2000, Krieger recorded the critically acclaimed album Cinematix with powerhouse drummer Billy Cobham and keyboard whiz Edgar Winter. Then, in 2002, he joined with Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and former Cult vocalist Ian Astbury in a band that was first billed as the Doors of the 21st Century, then Riders on the Storm, and now Ray & Robbie of the Doors.

What was the spark that ignited your interest in guitar?

I liked classical music at first. My father bought me a record of Peter and the Wolf that I liked as a kid, and my mother played the radio a lot and was into Frank Sinatra. Elvis Presley was the first rock ’n’ roll that grabbed my attention. When Elvis came on the radio, it was like night and day. He was my favorite. From there, I discovered Fats Domino, the Platters, and other blues-based stuff. I searched my dad’s record collection, and he had blues 78s that I wish I had kept. I liked boogie-woogie piano a lot too, but that sounded dated compared to Elvis.

Who were your early guitar heroes and influences?

I didn’t zone in much on the guitar at first on Elvis records. I liked the echo of the guitar, but didn’t know if it was Scotty Moore. My dad had flamenco records, and I liked that guitar playing best. Sabicas was probably the greatest flamenco guitarist. He was very underrated and he came up with different forms of the style. I was influenced by him, as well as Mario Escudero and Carlos Montoya, who practically invented flamenco guitar. I got into blues when I was in high school. I listened to Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Mance Lipscomb, and, of course, Robert Johnson. I also got into folk music. Bob Dylan was my favorite, but I also liked Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bud & Travis, and Woody Guthrie. They were all big influences.

Did you study guitar?

Yes. To play Flamenco, you had to have a teacher—unless you were a good musician already and could copy all that stuff off the record. I took lessons and did a lot of practicing. My first guitar was a Mexican Ram’rez classical, which was a knockoff of the better Spanish-made Ram’rez guitars. I have a Spanish one made in 1963 that my dad bought for me while he was on a business trip to Spain.

Which jazz guitarists did you listen to for inspiration?

I like Larry Carlton, Pat Martino, and John Scofield, among others, but Stanley Jordan is my favorite jazz player.

You’re most known for playing a Gibson SG Standard. How did you come to use that guitar?

Before I played electric guitars, I knew nothing about them. But then I saw Chuck Berry and had to get one. I went to a pawnshop and all I could afford was a used Gibson SG Standard—it cost me $180. That was the guitar I used in the Doors. I played ES-335s and ES-355s also, but I always went back to the SG. It’s the most comfortable guitar for me. It does what I need it to do and always has.

Do you still have that original SG?

No, it was stolen a long time ago. I found a ’67 that’s almost identical to the one I had, and I still use that one all the time.

Tell me about Gibson’s recent Robby Krieger SG reissue.

I’m happy with it. They copied the ’67 SG I have now. I didn’t like that guitar’s original neck, so the neck on it is actually a copy of a friend’s ’61 SG Junior that I preferred. Gibson wired the front and rear pickups out of phase like a wah. It was a mistake, but a good one.

What other instruments are you using right now?

I have a Stratocaster that I use once in a while, and I still play ES-355s but only in the studio, not live. I also use an older SG Special with P-90s for slide—I believe it’s a ’75. I have about thirty guitars total.

I’ve heard you bought a sunburst 1960 Les Paul years ago, too.

Years ago, I had a chance to buy the prettiest ’burst I ever saw—great flame top, lightweight— but I turned it down because the guy wanted $3000… back in the ‘70s! I wasn’t going to pay $3000 for a guitar. I should have bought it, though. So when the Burst Brothers had this Les Paul at Guitar Center in LA, a friend of mine saw it and called me. I bought it, but it isn’t as pretty as the one I turned down. But it’s still a great guitar.

What do you like about that guitar?

My ’burst is very light. I don’t like heavy guitars, and the neck on mine is slimmer than the ’59s—which generally had necks like telephone poles. I think Gibson made the best necks in 1960 and ’61. I never take that guitar on the road, for obvious reasons.

What’s your current amp rig?

My rigs have changed quite a bit over the years. The first amp I used with the Doors was a Magnatone with two 12" speakers. Then we got a deal with Acoustic, and I used their 260 model for a while. Ray was using one of their amps, too, but we both grew disenchanted with them after awhile. Then I started using a couple of Twin Reverbs that were rebuilt with JBL speakers in them by my friend, Vince Traenor, a crazy genius who also works on pipe organs. He likes to sneak into cathedrals and play the pipe organs. My current rig is two Fender Hot Rod DeVilles, with either 2x12 or 4x10 speaker cabs.

What’s on your pedalboard right now?

I use a Boss ME-10 multi-effect unit, which they don’t make anymore, and I use the gain channel on the amps too. That’s my basic rig. Very simple.

Back in the '60s, did you have freedom to create your own guitar parts with The Doors, or were you taking direction from anyone?

I was free to create parts on my own, but once in a while Jim would tell me what to play. There were four different versions of “Roadhouse Blues,” all with different guitar parts.

Lonnie Mack played bass on that track, didn’t he? How did that come together?

Lonnie had quit the music business and was actually working for Elektra Records doing something. I know he sold Bibles for a while too. He was around the studio when we were getting ready to record “Roadhouse Blues,” so we asked him to play bass. He did a great job, and got back into music after that.

The Doors always used bass players in the studio, didn’t they?

Yes. Ray and I used to write the bass parts. On the first album, we used Larry Knechtel, the session guy. He passed away recently. On the second and third albums, we used Doug Lubahn from the band Clear Light. On the fourth, Harvey Brooks played bass, and we used Ray Neapolitan and Jerry Scheff on the fifth and sixth albums. Jerry is probably best known for having played in Elvis’s band for years.

What was the recording process like with the Doors?

It was two- or four-track, which was very limiting. Everything had to be perfect—there were no excuses. If it wasn’t, you went back and did it again. Of course, all the technology in the world doesn’t make for a great album, either. I would’ve loved to have had Pro Tools back then.

Speaking of recording, there’s a new live Doors CD coming out, right?

Yes. It’s a six-disc set called Live in New York. It’s being released on Rhino Records, and it was recorded over four shows in two nights. It’s pretty neat. The audience was really great, and we were up for the occasion. I think it’s the best live Doors recording available.

You’re still working with organist Ray Manzarek.

Yes, we’re now billed as Ray & Robby of the Doors. We were called Riders On The Storm for a while, because we couldn’t use The Doors anymore due to that ridiculous lawsuit by John Densmore. That was totally unnecessary, but he won in court, so we had no choice.

Why is John no longer performing with the band?

You’d have to ask him why he’s not involved. Actually, John has tinnitus, so he’s not playing loud music anymore. I wish he would come around and play. He’s still a partner in the business end of the band, but the lawsuit has made it difficult to remain friends. We really haven’t been close with John since the ‘70s.

What was it like for the Doors to continue as a three-piece band after Jim died?

I have to say it was tough not having Jim up front, but he had become so unpredictable and unreliable. Ray and I had to take over lead vocals. After he was gone, we could actually make a set list and stick to it—but it wasn’t much fun. Jim’s onstage spontaneity was a big part of the Doors live experience. The audiences were very cool about it, though. We took along another guitar player named Bobby Raye, a friend of ours from LA, and a bass player named Big Jack Conrad—the first time we ever had a bass player onstage.

KRIEGER'S GEARBOX

Guitar: 1967 Gibson SG Standard, 2009 Gibson Robby Krieger Signature SG Standard, 1975 Gibson SG Special, 1964 and 1967 Gibson ES-355s, 1963 José Ram’rez classical


Amps:
Two Fender Hot Rod DeVilles with 2x12 or 4x10 speaker cabinets

Effects:
Boss ME-10

If you could talk to Jim again, what would you say to him?

Look what you’re doing to yourself and the band. Look how you’ve fucked yourself up. You’ve wasted your life. You couldn’t tell Jim anything; he did what he wanted.

I understand you have a solo album coming out soon.

It’s all instrumental and titled Singularity. It’s been finished for a while, but we had to find a good label to release it. It’s on a small label called Oglio Records that’s mostly known for doing comedy records. There’s flamenco and jazz on there and lots of guitar. It’ll be out soon.

Any words of Krieger wisdom for our readers?

Try to find a style you like that’s the most fun and work on that. Try to use as many guitars as you can to get different sounds.

One last question: When I saw the Doors on TV playing “Touch Me,” you had a huge black eye. What happened?

I had a fight with Jim and he hit me. You’ll have to read my book to find out what happened. I’m writing it myself and it’ll be done sometime soon. Ray and John both wrote their own books about the Doors, so I figured I should write one too.

robbykrieger.com

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